Dressage Today had a chance to sit down with one of dressage’s most decorated competitors, German Olympian Isabell Werth, following her appearance at the 2013 Global Dressage Forum, D. Read more to hear her take on horses, training, raising a family and the secrets to her success in the arena.
You are a mother with more than 20 horses in training, and you have eight Olympic medals. Can you give any insight and/or advice on how you have achieved such high goals, personally and competitively?
The main thing is having a good attitude toward the sport. It is very hard work, and the biggest problem is balancing riding properly and spending quality time with your child. I try very hard to concentrate 100 percent on riding in the mornings when my son, Frederik, is in playgroup. To be honest, I was an old mother and it is easier to have a child when you are more experienced with organizing a yard and competing regularly. The family and team have to be flexible.
You also became a practicing lawyer for two years. What qualities in your character has that developed that are useful as an Olympian?
I wanted to give myself a second option in regard to my occupation. I learned to be very determined. It was quite difficult riding in the mornings and then having to make sure I kept up with my work. Sometimes before an exam I had to work through the night. However, I managed to make that happen. I discovered that if I set my mind to something and work hard enough, then I can succeed.
As a teenager you jumped and evented. How did this contribute to your skills as a horsewoman?
As a child, I enjoyed a normal riding-club upbringing. I think that it is very important not to specialize in dressage too early. Riders learn a lot about balance and not interfering with the horse when they jump or go cross-country. I think this is sometimes lacking in riders who have only ever ridden on the flat.
Was qualifying for the Olympic Games a natural progression or an obsession?
As a girl, it was always a dream of mine. When I joined up with (my eventual Olympic mount) Gigolo I realized that this dream could become a reality.
After qualifying and being on the Olympic team for the first time, how did your life change?
At that point in my life, nothing changed dramatically, but it was the start of my real professional career in the sport of dressage.
When you are competing to qualify for the Olympic Games, what is most important to you and for your horse?
I have learned from my mistakes in the past that you can only produce a horse successfully for the European Championships or Olympic Games when he is far enough on in his training to do so. If he is still struggling with certain situations or is maybe not quite strong enough to cope with such a long competition or maybe a long journey then it is not worth risking the horse. This is difficult when the competition is the Olympic Games, but in the long term definitely better.
When you are at an Olympic competition, what is the most difficult situation to handle personally?
You must stay focused. Make sure you are not overtrained in the long run up to the Olympic Games. Don’t let people bring you out of your normal working process.
What is the most pressure you feel with your horse and how do you handle this situation?
I love competing—the more pressure there is, the more fun I have doing it.
The night before a competition, what will be a typical routine after you have finished with your horse and have left the stabling area?
If there is a sushi restaurant, then I will probably be there with (long-time sponsor) Madeleine Winter-Schulze.
Describe what you focus on the morning of the competition, before you enter the arena.
Depending on the horse, I will probably take him out and ride for about 40 minutes. He then goes back to his stable for a rest and will come out again about 30 minutes before the test. In between, I try to stay concentrated and focused and stay on my own.
During your warm-up, what are you predominantly focused on?
I forget everything else and focus on the horse and his reactions to have a perfect preparation.
During your test, is there one thing that you are focused on above all else?
It depends on the situation. Maybe that is the secret: You have to cope with the situations as they arise. You can’t have a plan for all situations.
What advice can you give to people who aspire to be successful international-quality trainers?
If you are not born into the scene, you have to be lucky to meet the right people at the right time. Then you just have to go for your goal. I think the most important quality of an Olympic rider/trainer is to have an unswayable belief in the horse you are riding. If you believe in him, you can achieve wonders. When a problem arises, the most important thing is to stop and think about where it has come from and what the cause is. When these aspects have been identified, the problem tends to become easier to cope with.
When you select a young horse are there any qualities that you are willing to compromise and improve with training?
You have to make compromises. No Olympic champion is born as a champion. If you select a young horse, you have to see something special in the horse and then you must follow this vision. I don’t just look for top movement; there is no horse with perfect movement. The most important qualities are movement, elasticity and rideability.
What do you look for in the bloodlines of the horses you choose for yourself?
It’s the moment you see a horse and you are fascinated. When I see a horse I need to be fascinated by him. The bloodlines are not so important. But, of course, if you breed you need to combine interesting bloodlines.
What aspects of training need to be confirmed before beginning half steps, piaffe and passage?
We start playing with half steps at a fairly young age. The horses are used to being shortened and lengthened in their work so it is a natural continuation of this to the half steps and to piaffe and passage. With some horses, we start the piaffe work in hand, with others under saddle. It depends on their responses. It is, however, very important that the horses are straight and working over their backs into a stable contact and that this is continued into the more difficult work. Without these basics, it is impossible for the horse to collect.
What are the most important reactions that you want from your horse in the beginning?
He must react even if the first step is only a hop. Our horses are always rewarded for a reaction.
What is the most important quality to maintain in a horse while practicing this work?
Obviously, training is work but it should always be fun. This is only possible when we are careful that we don’t overask. A few steps at the start are enough. When the horse is stronger, it is then not difficult to ask for more.
How do you begin this training with your horses?
As I said before, it really depends on the horse. Gigolo, Don Johnson and Bella Rose, for example, have never been worked in hand. El Santo, however, has profited immensely from in-hand work. Amaretto also took his first steps in hand. It is important to always consider what is best for your horse.
How do you feel this work affects the horse’s overall development?
The shortening and lengthening of the horse are extremely important for the gymnastic training. Without these elements, the horses become very stiff. The in-hand and piaffe is only a development of this work and must be continued throughout the horse’s career.
Do you feel this work can affect and improve a canter that lacks activity and balance?
The canter is more difficult to improve than the trot. However, when a horse gets stronger and learns to work roundly and more through, with the center of gravity farther back, then the canter will also gain automatically in quality. Good and correct gymnastic work always improves the canter.
What characteristics should be most prevalent in the rider when he or she introduces this work?
Patience and the willingness to accept a few steps at a time. The rider should always keep in mind what the final result should be.